Learning opportunities everywhere;
opportunities for teaching also.
Every thing is a complete lesson.
Nothing is useless. Yes, nothing at all!
But not everything will serve your purpose.
So, do you now propose to change the world?
Change and meddle, but things go their own way
pushed along by a much more powerful force
that is, you know, really no force at all.
Teach like this and there will be none better.
Not trying, you no longer need to try.
*My original commentary on Chapter 34 can be read here.
I write to see myself/ To set the darkness echoing.
Finger touches keyboards because there is so much cant out there at the minute. People report that they cried when they heard that the UK was leaving the EU. Predictions of doom abound. Anger and hatred is being expressed quite openly by people who are furious at the angry and hateful. I’ve seen tweets where adolescents are calling for the elderly to be disenfranchised. I’ve seen tweets where people are urging the elderly to hurry up and die. I’ve seen tweets where dissenting voices to the EU mean that people are labelled racists, fascists, xenophobes, Little Englanders.
I’m Irish by birth. I’m married to a Spanish woman and my children are all Spanish. We speak Spanish at home. My family is her family, so my family is entirely Spanish. I feel at home in Bilbao, just as I feel at home in this small northern town. I’ve lived in Ireland, England, Greece, Spain. I’ve visited Portugal, Italy, France. I love the French mannerisms; I love the Portuguese warmth; I love the Greek spirit; I love the Italian history and rich culinary tradition.
I was 2 years old when Ireland and Britain joined what is now known as the EU. I was 46 when I voted to leave the EU.
Why would I vote to leave the EU? Because of my xenophobia? Because of my racism? My fascist mindset? My need to see En-ger-land Uber Alles? Get over yourselves! I voted to leave the UK because when I was in the voting cubicle and was staring at the ballot paper, I couldn’t think of a good reason to remain. I remembered how the Greeks had been humiliated and forced to throw out one of the few government ministers who cared about beliefs; I remembered the Spanish people who had thrown themselves off balconies in the face of ruthless evictions and a life of penury; I remembered my Polish neighbours who had been forced -yep…forced – to leave family and friends to raise their children in a strange country where they felt isolated and lost; I remembered the countless TV programmes where the middle classes scoffed at the feckless working classes; I remembered the Goebbels style propaganda that I’d been reading on a daily basis that warned that a vote to leave would mean you were no better than the lazy white scum who wouldn’t know sophistication if it was sat across a table from them drinking caffe latte. And, quite simply, I thought: “I don’t want to be a part of all that.”
Now it turns out that I can be blamed for the break-up of the United Kingdom (¡Ojalá!). I am to blame for having destroyed the economy and the loss of trillions of dollars from the accounts of the wealthy (Yay!). Because of me (and not the incoming Slovak EU president), the plight of the global poor who look for refuge from war is about to get worse. My sort are to blame for the failed futures of the UK millennials who will never know peace and communion with our European partners. Bleurgh.
When the polling booths closed, I said to my kids, “I voted out, but it doesn’t really matter what the outcome is. If people want to stay, we have to stay and hopefully the vote will be strong enough to make people reflect on what really needs to be done. If we leave, things might get worse, but hopefully people will work together to make the best out of whatever situation presents itself.” That’s the point!
It is simplistic and reductionist to blame the Leave vote for whatever happens right now. People were asked if they wanted to stay in the EU or not and more people said no than said yes. We live in a society that means that we respect the will of the majority (no matter how small the difference is, which I am not sure is a wise system!). So, we leave. Not everyone will be happy, that is understandable. But the reality of the situation means that whether you’re happy or sad, you still have to live with it. If everything turns to shit, it will be because people were not happy to live with it and work with it. Not because people voted Leave, but because, having left, the Outraged seized back their ball and refused to play.
People cried when they heard. Cried! I asked my friend, “Why? What made you so sad? What do you love most about the EU that affected you so much?” The sense of unity, she said, it’s gone! But whatever sense of unity there was had very little to do with the European Union. The European Union turned Spain into a brothel; turned so many other countries into a crowded marketplace stuffed with desperate workers waiting to be exploited. We are what creates a sense of unity; we are the people whose heart bleeds to hear of the plight of Greek pensioners; we are the people who empathise with frustrated Spanish locals who watch the streets of their towns turned into sites of bacchanalia; we are the people who proffer towels and water bottles to refugees shipwrecks on our holiday beaches.
We stand at a momentous point in European history. Momentous points are never 100% comfortable. There will be painful moments ahead. The challenge is now to work to create something positive out of our lot: an alternative to secretive, undemocratic governance; a push towards the reform of a monolith that creates a hierarchy of countries within its confines; a European network where people are unified because they want to be, rather than because they are terrified of anything else. It is my hope now that the anger, blame and hypocrisy stops soon and that we replace the European Union with genuine European union.
One of the most interesting things for me about Brexit has been to watch as the curtain was lifted and we have been shown how crude propaganda can be. Either it has always been that way or journalists have lost the ability to be subtle. Given what passes for “journalism” these days, I suspect that it is the latter.
Any episode of the news provides an example of this. Yesterday, an “impromptu rally” of predominantly young people gathered outside parliament (where hitherto it had been illegal to protest…a cynical abuse of legislative power designed to remove anti-war protestor Brian Haw from his site of protest). They chanted E-U-WE-LOVE-YOU, which must be the first time (perhaps since Franco’s death) that the youth have protested their love of a free trade organisation that makes offers which cannot be refused. The TV news anchor made a great job hamming up just how loud the protests were. When the people speak, the world shakes.
The day before, there had been a truly impromptu rally outside of the Houses of Parliament to support the existing Labour leader who was facing a party coup within the confines of the Palace of Westminster.Thousands gathered to show their support for him. It made the news, but speeches were silenced in favour of the reporter’s commentary (look at the pictures, but don’t listen to what they are saying). It did not, however, form the backdrop to the news anchor. It was just an event.
The day before we had also been privy to a BBC interview with the tearful Labour MPs who were betraying their leader. All trotted out the party line about what a nice man he was but how ineffectual he was as a leader. All of them! The first interview was with Angela Eagle. Soft, hushed tones were used to create a sombre, mourning effect. The journo paused and whispered, “This is clearly very hard for you.” Angela, on cue, produced some tears and confessed that, “Yes, yes it was.” For those of you who are concerned what That Bastard Corbyn had done to her, please be reassured that she has now composed herself sufficiently to let it be known that she is ready to fill the breach and has let her name go forward as a possible contender for the leader’s role. As the journo welcomed the two next interviewers to the room, he laid a gentle reassuring hand upon the shoulder of the woman MP. This was clearly hugely difficult for her and we were being invited to offer our empathy and compassion.
Nobody thought to interview Jeremy Corbyn. Nobody thought to toss a few questions towards Dennis Skinner. Nobody empathised with a Labour leader who was elected with the greatest mandate ever known for a political leader within the UK. However, somebody did think to share with us how he got this mandate – a news journalist explained that it was all down to the support of other political groups. The camera helpfully focused on a Socialist Twerker Party banner. No words were said; no words were needed.
We are constantly being told about the rise in racist attacks since the days of the referendum. Some beered up knobheads in Manchester told a (white) American to fuck off back to Africa, thus ensuring national infamy. C4 news interviewed the victim of the knobheads and pushed him like crazy to say that this was a direct result of the Brexit vote. Thankfully, he held back from drawing this conclusion. Poor man. He was clearly traumatised and unable to see straight. During the film of the insults, the guy was clearly very angry. He shouted at the knobs, “Seven years in the military. I would…”. Any right-thinking person was able to finish the sentence for him: “…FUCK YOU UP!”. In my favourite part of the news reportage, the presenter invited us to reflect on this. The man, they intoned, was a seasoned military veteran. He’d seen some serious shit. And yet he had been reduced to a quivering wreck by the [pro-Brexit] racists. Just sayin’…Channel 4 also led into their news segment on the Rise Of The Racists with a siren sound effect. The message, for those of you too thick to get it, is that it’s a goddamn warzone out there.
So far, all of the Leavers that have been interviewed by all news channels have had strong Estuary accents. All have been filmed in shopping precincts, or cafes, in run-down neighbourhoods or in grubby manual working environments. None of them have been able to put forward a particularly convincing argument for their vote (some have publicly recanted). I just wanna put back the Great in Great Britain, said one pie-eater. I don’t fink we should ‘ave all these immigrants camin’ ovuh ‘ere, innit, said a tea-swilling porker. In a stomach-churning act of hypocrisy, the BBC found a second-generation immigrant and essentially said, Look here, people. Here’s one of the ruddy darkies turning on one of his own. They then ran their VT with the guy sounding off about Poles and Eastern Europeans. He didn’t think they should be coming over here. The journo wasn’t on camera, but the tone of his voice left no doubt – if he had been, he would have looked straight into the lens and raised an insouciant eyebrow.
There’s a vile argument than the referendum vote proves how young people should have the vote. The unspoken rationale is that young people are much easier to manipulate and can be easily swayed to believe whatever flowery hippy bullshit about love and understanding that you feed them. Young brains are not yet capable of seeing the world in shades of grey. Everything is black or white. This feature of neurological development makes it much easier to exploit them. We’re told that the elderly -the ones who fought wars and/or survived the austerity of the post-war years- are the selfish fuckers who shat all over the future of the youth (the same youth who were vilified following their beer-fuelled racist attacks on the American in Manchester). Even smart-thinking leftist types are arguing that it is the youth who will suffer most from this vote. WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK?!?!?! In my experience, it is the pensioners who really suffer when the governments start applying the screws. The youth tend to go about their lives and adapt quite well to whatever is thrown at them. Think back to the red-braces and stripy shirts of 1980s Thatcherland. Was Gordon Gecko a ruthless Young Turk or a decrepit old fart? Exactly.
All of which serves to polarise the community. I feel utterly vindicated by my Leave vote. In part it was a rejection of the values that underpin the EU – I’m alright, Jack, so fuck you. In contrast to those E-U-WE-LOVE-YOU automatons, I fucking detest the EU. I hate the way that it meets in secret and makes laws in secret. I hate the way that it raped Greece. I hate the way that it instructed the heirs of fascism in Spain to go to war against their own people. I hate the way that it champions privatisation and prioritises the health of trade over the health of the people. Some utterly braindead twats may be exploiting the xenophobic fears of segments of the British public, but the EU actually kills people. OH NO IT DOESN’T. IT”S ALL ABOUT PEACE AND HARMONY, trill the airheads. Is it fuck! It told governments to cut back on their spending by lowering wages and turfing people out of jobs. It negotiated trade deals with non-EU countries that enabled EU bosses to up sticks and relocate to cheaper -non-unionised- countries. It is about to sell off national industries to American corporations.
For a look at how the EU operates, just check out their reaction to Brexit. These are seasoned politicos. They are/should be remarkably prescient and responsible. They should be thinking, Sheesh. That vote was close. We owe it to the people to honour their will, but we owe it to the wider community to make sure that this gets managed properly. We don’t want people to suffer unnecessarily and we recognise that behind “The Vote” are millions and millions of lives – some of whom are particularly vulnerable. Let us explore with care the complexities of this decision which we are all aware is unique in world history. We have to get this right. Instead, the leading lights within the EU – i.e. the unelected Commission President (an ex-football hooligan) and the President of the Parliament inter alia– came out and said words to the effect of, RIGHT! WELL FUCK OFF AND FUCK OFF NOW! YOU’RE DEAD TO US AND WE DON’T WANT TO EVEN SEE YOUR FACES, YOU TRAITOROUS FUCKING HOUNDS!
They sicken me; they should sicken you. They prey on the vulnerable and serve the interests of the powerful. It is time that these facts were laid before the public. That they will never be should ring all number of alarm bells.
This is what I was trying to say when I wrote eight.
Taoism likes water and this chapter in the original text compares tao to water. The tao, as you may have gathered, is everything, so if it is like water, language is like water, teaching is like water etc. How so?
Lao Tzu answers that question pretty plainly – water gets everywhere and it brings things to life. It doesn’t set out to do this, it just does it. Teaching, it follows, can change a person’s life (for the better) in the most unexpected ways.
To teach well, it is vital to have the interests of the learners at heart. Not to say that you have them at heart, but really have them there. If this is the case, then pretty much anything that you choose to call teaching will hit the mark.
Lots of teachers worry about giving negative feedback – don’t! That is, don’t worry about it, but do give it. When students know that this is coming from a person who has their best interests at heart, they are invariably happy to get this sort of critical appraisal.
Don’t insist on students reproducing what you have taught them because you are the expert. Just because you’re the expert means nothing. You go and be the expert. How good does it feel? Teachers who feel the need to insist on their way or the highway are not really teachers. But at the same time, teachers are those who mark out the highway and insist that it is this way and this way alone. Am I contradicting myself? Yes and no.
What is the teacher’s job? The teacher’s job is to teach. So teach. How do you know when you are teaching? Answer that question and you are a teacher. Confused? Go back to the start of this paragraph and read it again. A teacher teaches. You know you are teaching when you are a teacher. Come on! This is straightforward stuff. Similarly, you know you are a teacher when you are teaching. But what is teaching? It’s what a teacher does. But how do you know if a teacher is teaching? Easy! If they’re not teaching, they’re not a teacher! If they’re not a teacher, they’re not teaching! This is the only acceptable definition of a teacher. No matter what you might think, all others are wrong; think again!
The line It’s about working with ignorance, not against it was inspired.
This is what I was trying to say when I paraphrased SEVEN.
The Tao Te Ching talks about “Heaven and earth lasting forever”. Heaven and earth are, of course, just conceptual labels that we have applied to reality. The nature of human conceptual labels is that they are all made of language. So, it didn’t seem too much of a jump to paraphrase Lao Tzu as saying that “Language lasts forever”. Following on from that, it didn’t seem too much of a jump to say that, just as heaven, earth and language last forever, so too do teaching and learning.
That is, as long as there are people to carve out measured time, there will be teachers and there will be learners. Teaching, learning, language…all these are inevitable for living people (and possibly dead ones too, but we just don’t know). So, dum spiro, doceo; dum spiro, accipio; and dum spiro, lingua est. No breathing, no language, no teaching, no learning. Members of the jury, I put it to you that life is teaching and learning.
That established, the question arises as to whether or not it is necessary to professionalise the role of the teacher. Surely, life itself is teaching (and learning), so why create another label and another concept? If we allow life to take the lead, the dance is much smoother and far more expressive. Smart teachers hold back. They allow life to return to the classroom and are there to observe it. Life, as the buddha taught, is not free from snaggles, so the observant teacher can unhook jerseys from mulberry bushes and pick up those who stumble on the way. The teacher who leads the way is far too busy to look back to make sure that everyone is safe.
When you don’t meddle, things tend to work out in their own way; in nature’s own way. Many people think that nature’s way can be improved upon. That’s their own nature! The cards are stacked. Throw down your hand. Nature always takes home the winnings.
Numbers are lower than hoped for. The boss determines that it is time to offer students more hours for more money.
“Absurd!” cries MacDougal. “It’ll never work!”
“I hear your cries,” spoke Big Chief Little, “but work it must and I trust you to deliver.”
To build support for the initiative, all existing students are offered free upgrades.
MacDougal stands enlightened, but dejected.
What makes a student underachieve. MacDougal thinks he knows, but doesn’t know what can be done. The boss knows what can be done, but doesn’t know what makes a student underachieve. Students know that underachievement is the bane of their lives and this makes them underachieve even more. They sign up for the extra hours, but never attend their classes.
Does more work work? Do students do more work when they need more work? Is more work ever the answer? Is language learning work? Will this bold initative work? What does work mean? Is teaching work? Just what makes Rihanna an expert on work, work, work? Is twerking working? For you? For me? Would shaking his hips make MacDougal feel less dejected? Is enlightenment ever a good thing?
THIS BE THE VERSE
You took my heart and my keys and my patience
You took my heart on my sleeve for decoration
You mistaken my love I brought for you for foundation
All that I wanted from you was to give me
Something that I never had
Something that you’ve never seen
Something that you’ve never been!
This is what I was trying to say when I paraphrased SIX.
In my interpretation of this chapter, I went back to the first thing we were told about Tao – it can’t be described; it lies beyond all conceptual thinking. The moment you begin to use words to describe it, you are doomed. Words can only ever come close, but will always fall short. The American poet Jack Gilbert (a recent discovery for me) put it this way
How astonishing it is that language can almost mean and frightening that it does not quite.
I think Degas was also getting close to the truth when he admitted that art was not a reproduction of what was in front of the artist, but a prompt that would allow other people to imagine what was there. Our art, our language, only ever allows us to represent, never to reproduce.
Humans are driven by a need to understand and to conceptualise. We need to find out if there is life on Mars; we hate poems that seem to bar our understanding; it is important to us that we understand how the word works. And in language education, that means trying to understand how people learn languages and trying to understand what makes people learn and what makes people teach well.
Tao says that whatever understanding we reach is going to be a pretence. It’s not real. Whatever makes things the ways they are will always be beyond our understanding. The dangers come when people reach this flawed understanding and then work tirelessly to ensure that the world conforms to their perspective. This gives rise to the words should and must. These words form the bedrock of a lot of misery in this world.
Instead, says Lao Tse (and me, in my poor imitation), accept your limitations. Things are the way they are because, given everything that led to them being the way they are, they could be no other way. There’s no point tearing your hair out about things happening that shouldn’t be happening or students doing things that they simply mustn’t do. Things happened that made these things happen or made the students do what they do. How else could it be?
Do we roll over and accept whatever? Is Lao saying that some of the discipline problems that educators face should just be accepted? Not quite. Lao is saying that if those problems arise, the educators who do accept them are doing so for reasons beyond their control. The educators who decide to brook no nonsense and enforce strict discipline and high expectations are also doing so for reasons beyond their control. There are reasons why you are reading this bilge! There are reasons why some people aren’t and wouldn’t even if you threatened to burn down their house with all that they loved locked inside.
It’s not so much about passive acceptance as it is about not being emotionally disturbed by what is going on. Understand that what goes on has its reasons and then react as you believe is appropriate (which is what you’re going to do anyway). Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your reaction is the only right one and the “natural” one. It won’t be. Don’t lose sleep over the world not conforming to your beliefs; not one of your beliefs is actually real.
Don’t presume that one day science will unveil the correct way of teaching and learning. It won’t. It can’t. Don’t doubt your way of teaching (or learning). It is the way that it is and it has reasons for being the way that it is. If you are inclined to look for ways of improving it, do so without lamenting how lamentable you are. That’s just the stage that you are at in your teaching and it could be no other way. Don’t get emotionally disturbed by the ways of your learners. They could be no other way. Don’t get frustrated by your lack of understanding, it could be no other way. I feel that this is the time to use an et cetera.
What is to be gained by taking this approach? Well, you’d be living much more in accordance with the Tao – with the way that the universe works and this is the path to a life free from stress and suffering.Sure, you won’t know how the brain stores language or what the secret to pain-free language acquisition is. But you might die smiling.